DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And let's turn now to Afghanistan where the number of American forces is just a tenth of what it was at the height of the war. The American lead combat role has now given way to a training mission. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan over the years. He's back this week and on the line from Kabul. Tom, good morning.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.
GREENE: So it's been about two years since your last visit, right? I guess I wonder what your impressions are since you've arrived this time.
BOWMAN: Well, a couple of things. Kabul seems more tense than it was two years ago. There were more threats of suicide bombings and attacks as some have happened. And the Westerners aren't out as much in restaurants or in the streets as they were. We see more blast walls around, more barbed wire. When they're moving embassy personnel from the airport to the embassy, they tend to close off streets. And also, U.S. Army generals, rather than drive across town from, let's say, a commando base to the Ministry of Defense, they'll actually fly there.
GREENE: So you're saying a capital that's actually getting more tense. I guess you're going to be examining why that is. What other questions are you trying to answer on this trip?
BOWMAN: Well, the big thing on this trip is how the Afghan force is really doing. The pronouncements you get from the Pentagon and elsewhere is that they're doing well. They're stepping up to the task. And what I've heard so far, it's a bit of a mixed picture.
Now, there have been two big operations so far, and the one that really didn't work out as well, it happened in the Eastern part of the country near the Pakistan border. There were some army outposts that were overrun. Several dozen Afghan soldiers were killed and wounded. And then there's another operation that just wrapped up in northern Helmand province. The Afghans use their own artillery. They use their own attack helicopters. And the Americans are holding this operation up as a model. But in both operations, they had to rely on the more experienced and elite troops - the Afghan commandos - to make a difference. But there just aren't enough of these commandos to go around. So the Afghan army is going to have to find a way to do these operations on their own.
GREENE: And now that you're on the ground again, Tom, does any of this surprise you sort of based on what you had been hearing, you know, here in Washington and the Pentagon?
BOWMAN: You know, not really. Again, people keep saying the Afghan army is a bit spotty. It's going to take them time with training and experience to really be able to do this job. If they get in serious trouble, the Americans will come in and do bombing runs. But they really want the Afghans to do this on their own. And we were just talking to one official who said this is a crucial year for the Afghans. They now have complete responsibility for combat operations, and the big question - the unanswered question - is, will they be able to do it, or will the Americans have to come to their help again?
GREENE: That was the voice of NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman on the line from Kabul. He'll be reporting from Afghanistan over the next few weeks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.